1. Does Billy
Budd face his trial at the hands of a kangaroo court, one that is
characterized by irresponsible, unauthorized, or irregular status
or procedures? If Billy’s trial is illegitimate, how does its illegitimacy relate
to the overall theme of the novel?
Some members of the ship’s crew question
Captain Vere’s right to pass such swift judgment upon Billy, and,
to a certain extent, their misgivings are reasonable. The assembled
jury is certainly competent enough, yet Vere takes the dubious dual
role as chief witness and direct superior, or judge.
Melville shows that illegitimate courts prevail in a time of war.
Moreover, because Melville insists that life fundamentally exists
in a state of perpetual war and natural depravity; to him, life
is nothing more than a kangaroo court. Indeed, the narrator points
out that when the crew members begin to “murmur” following the trial
and Billy’s execution, the superiors on the ship quickly squelch
these grumblings by blowing their whistles, forcing the men back
to their duties.
2. What moral
issues arise with the jury’s decision to sentence Billy to death?
Do you think the jury makes the right decision?
Here we have the classic dilemma between
the spirit and the letter of the law, or, as Vere frames it, the
conflict between conscience and law. Because laws exist to support
the integrity of a society and because laws receive their strength
from those who enforce them, logic calls for the equal and firm
application of those laws. Traditionally, people think of justice
as being blind, and for good reason: once the adjudicator begins
to base his judgments on mitigating, particular, or personal circumstances
and considerations, he threatens the very fabric of the law and,
by extension, the very fabric of society. However, the firm application
of the law means little if that law itself is unjust. Despite the
logic of Captain Vere’s arguments, especially as applied during
a time of war, we are likely to be left feeling that Billy is sacrificed
unnecessarily to the greater glory of an abstract, dehumanized cause.
In most courts of law, intention and motivation carries weight in
the consideration of an action. What might be considered wrongdoing
when performed in the service of a noble cause, is undoubtedly justified.
This constant sensitivity eventually inspires the revision and improvement
of laws, representing how the just prevail in their revolution against
the iniquitous hand of their oppressors.
In Billy’s case, the jury initially questions, but ultimately
conforms to Vere’s harsh reliance upon military justice, a system
of law that rejects consideration of motive and intention. Certainly,
the question of whether Billy is truly guilty of treason due to
his silence concerning a possible conspiracy complicates matters.
Yet, judging based upon what they know, the jury still makes the
unjust decision to condemn a man without considering his situation.
who bears the most responsibility for Billy’s death: Claggart, Vere,
or Billy himself?
This is one of the many difficult problems
that Melville’s book raises. A strong argument could be made against
the provocative Claggart, who drove Billy to the deed in an act
of bald contempt. One could say that Claggart got what he deserved
for he knowingly dragging Billy down with him in the process of
On the other hand, it was Billy himself who made the
largest transgression, committing homicide in the face of a simple,
if mean-spirited, accusation. All he had to do was simply defend
a verbal accusation with a verbal defense, and the Captain, doubtful
as he was of Claggart’s allegation, probably would have dismissed
the matter entirely.
Finally, one could pin the ultimate blame on Captain
Vere, the inflexible stickler who insists on carrying out the law
to the exact letter, even against his own better judgment. In placing
principles above people, one could argue that Vere has committed
the gravest sin of all, moreover attempting to wash his hands of
responsibility in the very process.
Still, Melville shows that Vere operates under the negative
influence of greater forces, social situations, and laws motivated
by a hunger for power and a drive to war. In this sense, Melville
draws attention to the idea that, in the modern world, people grow
up in an inherently flawed and evil society that causes them to
harden to the needs of their fellow human beings. Therefore, this
laundry list of guilty parties could go on and on, including men
like the Dansker as well.